A sermon preached at Forest Fold Baptist Chapel, Crowborough, on October 10,1993.
‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ 1 John 1-9.
1. What is Confession?
Recently I was speaking about confession as the Bible uses the word in quite a different connection. We were thinking then of the way in which all believers on the Lord Jesus Christ are called to make an open and public confession of their faith in Him, their allegiance to Him. They are clearly to be marked out as Christ’s disciples by their confession of His Name, of His truth, and of their hope in Him. Their confession of faith in Him as the Saviour is to mark them out from others in a very open and public way.
You might wonder why this word ‘confession’ is used for the confession of faith in Christ and here, in this verse 9, for confession of sin. Well, as you may remember, the word has this underlying meaning, that in confession, we are speaking in a way which is consistent with the Word of God. Our words are in line with God’s Word, so that when we confess the Lord Jesus Christ in that open, public way, we are speaking of Him in the way in which the Word of God speaks of Him, in the way in which God Himself has spoken of Him. When you hear the voice of God from heaven saying, ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,’ your confession runs exactly parallel with that, and you say, ‘I believe that Jesus is the Son of God.’
When we come to the confession of sin, we may be hesitant for a moment, but in fact what we are really doing when we confess our sin is that we are speaking of our sin and of ourselves in a way which is consistent with the way in which the Word of God speaks of our
sin and of ourselves. The underlying sense of the word is the same. We are now speaking in a way which runs along with the clear declaration of the Word of God. We cannot know what sin is apart from God’s own declaration regarding what is right and what is wrong, what is sinful, and what is righteous. We need to know this, and we need to have in our hearts this underlying bed-rock principle from the Word of God. When that is there in our hearts and consciences, then we shall be able to begin to see ourselves as God views us. That is absolutely fundamental, it is a background to confession of sin. We must know what sin is if we are going to speak about it in a way that is consistent with the Word of God. I believe we must have the Holy Spirit at work in our hearts giving us that conviction regarding sin and righteousness, and the tremendous contrast between the two. We need the Spirit of God working within us to bring us personally to admit and to confess what our situation is in the light of God’s truth.
2. What is confessed?
What is it that is to be confessed? Well, of course, it is sin, and the sin that is to be confessed is the sin that is made known and made plain by God’s own revelation of Himself, of His own requirements as the Holy God. It is when we realise what God has commanded that we realise we have not kept His commandments. As we read the Word of God we can see, or begin to see, that in our lives there are sins of commission (we have done the things we ought not to have done); there are sins of omission (we have not done the things that we ought to have done). We then see ourselves as the sinner, and we become very deeply and personally involved in this matter of confession. There is a pressure upon us and upon our consciences, a pressure at work within our souls that bends and breaks us and brings us down to the point where we have to make this free and open admission to God of what we are.
3. Confession in the Old Testament
The first occasion in the Bible where we read of confession is in the Book of Leviticus. In chapter 5, various sins have been recorded, and then in verse 5 we read, ‘And it shall be, when he shall be guilty in one of these things, that he shall confess that he hath sinned in that thing.’ Now clearly, God has made known certain things that are right and certain things that are wrong, and when a man or a woman becomes convinced of the fact that they have done wrong, then these words are very significant. ‘He shall confess,’ is in the masculine, but, of course, includes the feminine. Whoever you are, man, woman, boy or girl, you are to confess that you have sinned ‘in that’. ‘That’ is in italics, it has been supplied to give the
sense, but the emphasis is upon ‘that, that which you are very much aware of, your conscience! You know you have sinned, well then, confess that. ‘And he shall bring his trespass offering unto the Lord for his sin which he hath sinned.’ Clearly, it was a confession of a sin which had been exposed by God Himself, and by God’s own Word to that person.
Another very important occasion when you come across the word confession is in that well known chapter 16 in the Book of Leviticus. Here is the great yearly feast of Atonement which the Jews were to celebrate, and at the very centre of that Feast of Atonement there was this matter of confession, and if you look in chapter 16, at verse 21 you read, ‘And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: and the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.’
Again, very clearly and obviously, confession has to do with sin;
in this case, it had to do with the sin of the whole nation, and here is the high priest making a public and open national confession. In that confession, there is a laying of Aaron’s hands upon the head of this substitute, this goat who, symbolically, is to bear the sin of the people away from them, right out into the wilderness to be lost. Here there is a sort of prototype in Scripture which is pointing forward to something that is wonderfully fulfilled in the New Testament. It is not just a matter of knowing sin, of confessing sin, but it is then a question as to how God will deal with that sin. Here on the day of the Feast of Atonement, the Jews were being told in a simple and symbolic manner that God had a way of dealing with sin when it was truly confessed. There was a way in which He could remove that sin from the people. In these words there is this doctrine of substitution – the sin is taken from the people who deserve punishment, it is laid upon the head of the goat, and the goat bears the burden away from the people; clearly pointing prophetically to the Lord Jesus Christ, who Himself must bear our sins in His own body on the tree. If ever our sins are to be taken away from us, and the burden of sin removed from us so that we are free from our sin and free from guilt, then it must be in this way that there is a substitute appointed by God to bear away the sin, and to bear the punishment instead.
The Psalmist also was very much aware of this need for confession. Let us look at Psalm 32.1 know there are other Psalms which have to do with sin and transgression and confession, but this is certainly one of them. In Psalm 32 and verse 5, David says, ‘I
acknowledged my sin unto thee, and my iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.’ You see what David is meaning? There is this open, plain acknowledgement of his sin unto God. ‘I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and my iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord.’
4. Confession is personal, sincere, and comprehensive
Now, let us make this personal. Have you ever done that? Have you ever in your life, done that? It is absolutely vital that you should do that, and that is true of every single person in this building, because we have all sinned. We are all guilty in God’s sight. Have you ever felt within your soul the need to be absolutely honest with God? To acknowledge your sin, really and truly acknowledge that it is sin, that it is sin against God? To be as David was in the 51st Psalm when he said, ‘Against thee, thee only have I sinned’. Our sin may well affect others, I will come to that in a moment; we may well have wronged and harmed and hurt other people in our sinning, but this is the principal thing – are we ready to acknowledge our sin, openly, clearly as before the living God, who sees and knows our hearts -‘are we going to confess our iniquity to Him? Are we going to come to Him and say, ‘Lord I am not hiding anything; I would not hide a single thing in my life, because I know I cannot, but because I want to make this open confession to my God, I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord.’
Secondly, confession must be sincere. But David had a struggle! He says in verse three, ‘When I kept silence my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long; for day and night, thy hand was heavy upon me, my moisture was turned to the drought of summer. Selah.’ Then he has to say, ‘I acknowledge my sin unto thee’. You see the point – he was brought down until he must acknowledge his sin to his God. There is a deep sincerity about this, even though there had been this struggle beforehand. In the end he has to come to his God with sincere confession.
Thirdly, it is a comprehensive confession. Now, you might say, ‘Well, David only said, ‘I acknowledge my sin unto thee and my iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord.’ He uses the words sin, iniquity and transgressions without specifying what they were. So he did, but for a special reason. This was an inspired song which would be sung by many other people in the future. David’s own personal and individual sins would not be the sins that others would be feeling guilty of. It was God’s intention that these words should fit every penitent sinner. So you must take these words, sin, iniquity, and transgression, and you must put there in those places, your own individual, particular sins.
That is a real confession, it is a comprehensive confession. It is not just saying something like this, ‘Oh, I feel very miserable, I must be a sinner; Lord, forgive me.’ You may feel like that, but David’s words are going to lead us much deeper than that. We shall not just float over the surface of confession when we come to a verse like this. There is going to be some real heart-work if we truly confess our sin.
You may ask. Why did I read chapter 7 in the book of Joshua earlier? Well, partly because it is one of the most solemn in the Old Testament in connection with confession. It also reminds me of the sin of Ananias and Sapphira in the New Testament, and I believe there is a similarity in the two situations. In Joshua’s day the children of Israel were just entering in upon the possession which God had promised them in this land of Canaan, and there was something which happened which threatened the whole prospect for the future of the Old Testament church of Israel. In the Acts of the Apostles, Ananias and Sapphira sinned in such a way that the whole life of the early Christian Church was being threatened; God had to deal with tremendous solemnity and awfulness with those sins which were so peculiarly threatening on the threshold of a new phase in life of God’s chosen people. He had to show, unmistakably, that there were moral principles which must govern the life of Israel, which were absolutely essential for their future life together in the land of promise. Similarly with Ananias and Sapphira, there were moral principles which were essential to the life and prosperity of the Christian Church; God was going to show in a devastating way, that that was true.
I leave you to follow the thought through a little further, but let us turn to chapter 7 in the book of Joshua again, because here we have very clear instruction regarding true confession. Joshua said, (verse 19) to Achan, ‘My son, give, I pray thee, glory to the Lord God of Israel, and make confession unto Him, and tell me now what thou hast done. Hide it not from me’. Now you remember the really awesome situation that had developed. Here was a man who had sinned secretly, and he was hiding the results of his sinful action beneath the floor of his tent, and the whole of the nation of Israel had been suffering as a result of his sin. They had been defeated by a comparatively few soldiers in the town of Ai. The future life and prosperity of the people was being threatened. Now, Joshua says, My son, give I pray thee, glory to the Lord God of Israel, and make confession unto Him; and tell me now what thou hast done; hide it not from me. And Achan answered Joshua, and said, Indeed I have sinned against the Lord God of Israel, and thus and thus have I done.’ Then he goes on to detail the matter out, ‘I saw among the spoils a goodly Babylonish garment, and two hundred shekels of
silver.’ The point I am making is this – his confession had to be open, and plain, and detailed. In this case, it had to be made in the hearing of all the people, and certainly in the hearing of Joshua himself. God, in a terrible way, had singled out this family; one by one the tribes had come, one by one the families had come, one by one the members of the families had come, and Achan was eventually the one singled out by the finger of God. I do not know exactly how that was done, the Lord knows, and the Lord still knows how to make that kind of separation. He knows how to single out those who are guilty, and deal with them.
Friends, we need to tremble before the living God, we are not playing at religion. When you come face to face with a God who sees your heart, your motives, your intentions, then you will know that there is no way to be playing with God. God is One who has sovereign power, and He holds us in His hands, and He is calling us at this very moment to make confession of our sin to Him. God’s warning voice sounds from chapter 7 in the book of Joshua, most terribly! You see, in Achan’s case, there was no pardon, there was no pardon! That, to me, seems very, very solemn and it should make us very, very concerned so that we shall never become glib about confession, repentance, and forgiveness. You can become very glib about it, some people do. ‘Oh well’, they say, ‘it says there in that verse we read earlier, “If we confess our sins”, so we have confessed our sins and we are forgiven, I am sure we are forgiven; we do not need to worry any more’. Well, I do not see it in the same way! Do you? I see that there were some who were forgiven, and there were some who were not forgiven. There were some who confessed in time, if I could use a human expression, and they confessed in a certain way, and God forgave their sin. There were some who were forced into confession, as Achan, Ananias, and Sapphira eventually were, forced into admitting their sin, but it seems to me that there was no freeness and willingness; they were absolutely compelled to do it. Achan could not escape, could he? God had separated him From every other single person in the whole of the nation; he could not escape, he had to say, ‘Indeed, I have sinned,’ for God had so plainly told him he had sinned. He had to admit what his sin was, because he had been singled out in such a remarkable way.
5. Confession to those sinned against
Not only do we have to admit our sin openly to God, but there are occasions when we must admit and confess our sin openly to those we have wronged. Again, I am using Old Testament scripture which is very helpful. In Numbers chapter 5, verse 5, ‘The Lord spake unto Moses, saying. Speak unto the children of Israel, When a man or woman shall commit any sin that men commit, to do a trespass
against the Lord, and that person be guilty; then they shall confess their sin which they have done: and he shall recompense his trespass with the principle thereof, and add unto it the fifth part thereof, and give it unto him against whom he hath trespassed.’ Here you are facing a situation where someone has wronged someone else, perhaps by robbery, by thieving, or by dishonesty. They have had something stolen from them, or have been cheated in some way, and the guilty person is found out. Now, if that guilty person is genuine in their confession, the Lord is teaching here that there has to be recompense made for the wrong that has been done. If you stole your next door neighbour’s wheelbarrow, and you say, I am going to confess my sins to the Lord, and you go to your bedroom, and you kneel down, and you confess your sin to the Lord, the whole thing is an utter hypocrisy until the wheelbarrow is back in your neighbour’s garage, and confession has been made to him. According to these words here, a fifth of the value of the wheelbarrow also has to be given to the person who has been wronged, because he has not had it for some weeks probably, and needed it. I know it is a very basic sort of illustration, but you can get the trend of these verses very clearly. If we wrong somebody, then that wrong has to be put right, very definitely put right, and the genuineness of our confession is proved by the fact that we would be willing if necessary to add a fifth part of the value of that which we have taken from someone else.
The New Testament case of Zacchaeus who climbed the sycamore tree is another one. He was willing to restore fourfold to the people whom he had robbed and cheated. Well, there was the genuineness of his confession, and the Lord said to him, ‘This day is salvation come to thy house.’ He was open and genuine and definite about his confession and about his repentance. We do need to make genuine confession and reparation to those we have wronged in our sinning.
There is another verse which struck me, thinking about this. That is in the New Testament Scripture, in the Epistle of James (chapter 5, verse 16): ‘Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.’ This is well known as a difficult part of James’ Epistle to interpret in detail. The context of course, is sickness (verse 13-15). In a parallel situation in the Church at Corinth, there were abuses at the Lord’s Table, and one of the ways in which God pointed out these abuses and showed his displeasure, was that many were sick and some had died. It was not just the ordinary process of things in that Church at Corinth. There will always be some members of a church who are sick, and as always, there are some that are growing old and, as always, some have died.
‘However, in Corinth, there was something very specific and unusual about what was happening. It seems to me that there was something of that thought behind these verses in James’ letter, but please do not misunderstand me, for I am certainly not saying that every sickness is part of God’s chastisement for some secret sin for which He is calling you to repent. That may be so, but it may not be ,so. I say, almost hesitantly about these verses, that there does seem to be that concern behind them, that our faults can sometimes result in illness.
Let me give you one illustration where I think that will certainly be the case. If you have a really guilty conscience, that is going to effect you, not only are you going to feel very uncomfortable with yourself, but it is going to have a profound effect on you, emotionally, mentally and physically. That is a well known fact. Even unbelieving doctors in hospitals dealing with mental illness will tell you the same, that they have people in psychiatric wards who are absolutely crushed under a sense of guilt. Now, sometimes it is for good and valid reasons, sometimes it is an irrational state of mind, but they know that a guilty conscience can cause tremendous consequences physically and mentally in our lives. The converse is true, is it not? When you see a person whose conscience is at rest, a person who really does know that between them and their God there is no barrier because their sins have been openly confessed and forgiven, then you will see people at rest, people who have a calm and quiet spirit; they show by their happy faces the inner peace they enjoy and then they can show in a very open and lovely way their affection for the Lord, and their life adorns the profession that they have made of Jesus Christ. Oh, how good it is to confess our faults both to the Lord and to one another!
Someone else might say to me, ‘Surely, that does not mean that we have got to run around telling everybody everything that goes on in our lives?’ Of course not! Again, you must set it in this context, there is a situation that has arisen that James is dealing with which is very serious. There is some specific, serious sin that has got to be confessed, someone has been hurt or harmed or wronged by the sin of another person. There has to be reconciliation between those two persons before there can be sincere confession to God, otherwise, again, it is sheer hypocrisy.
If you go to God and confess that you have wronged somebody else where the situation is still one of tremendous tension and bitterness, and you have made no attempt to go and try to be reconciled to your brother, well then, as the Old Testament Scripture says, you cannot bring your offering, you cannot bring your sacrifice to the Lord, to the altar of the Lord. You must first be back there with your brother, confessing your fault and seeking
reconciliation. The Lord confirms the same principle, does He not? ‘Confess your faults one to another’. Thankfully, when the fault is within yourself, when it is your own personal sin, when no one else is affected, when it is perhaps a sin of thought, or a sin of intention, then of course, confession can and must be made to God privately, and it would be folly for you to go to one and then to another telling them the secret evils of your own heart. You may tell those to the Lord, and to the Lord alone. If the secret evils of your heart have burst out into open sin, and someone else has been hurt or harmed, then the situation is different.
6. The importance of confession
Why must sin be confessed? Why is this so important? Let us come back to the text I have been using as a basis for general consideration of the doctrine of confession. ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’. The context is very clear. It must be an honest confession of guilt, ‘if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar.’ The context is honest confession of sin to God. It is important that we confess those sins to God in that way, because that kind of confession is absolutely fundamental to real repentance, and there is no salvation without repentance. ‘Repent and be converted that your sins may be blotted out.’ That is the New Testament message regarding sin and repentance? Repentance in the heart, that change within us, that radical change of mind and attitude which characterises repentance is expressed in our confession. Without confession there is no evidence of repentance and without repentance there can be no salvation.
There is an ‘if at the beginning of verse 9-If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. Now, do not misunderstand that little word, if. It is not that God is saying. If you confess your sins, then you will merit my forgiveness. We merit nothing. We are sinners. We are making confession of sin, the sin for which we have no offering to make; we cannot deal with our own personal sin and guilt, can we? The ‘if is really an ‘if of argument, and it tells us this, that God Himself has joined confession with forgiveness. We do not earn anything but it is God’s way of dealing with us, and we shall know that God is dealing with us when we come this way. First, confession, and then He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and He has very graciously joined His own faithfulness to this assurance, that we shall be forgiven as we make this genuine confession of our sin.
This confession of sin is essential to vindicate God’s own character (verse 10), ‘If we say that we have not sinned’, (which is in fact to
contradict what God has said), ‘then we make Him a liar’. Not of course in actual fact, for God is never a liar, but by our words, we are representing God as though He were a liar, because He says we have sinned, and we say we have not sinned. We are claiming to speak the truth, and so we are making God to tell a lie. Now, God does not tell lies, so I say, confession is essential to vindicate the character of God. We may not realise that this is what we are doing when we make our confession, but when we make our confession, we are really saying, ‘I want to make it plain that I believe that God is the just and righteous God, that He hates sin, that I have sinned against Him. He is the just and the holy one, and I am in agreement.’ (That is why I spoke earlier about our words being alongside His words). ‘If we say we have sinned, and make our confession, then our words are alongside His words. There is then agreement and it is essential to vindicate God’s character.
It is essential that we make confession of sin for our own peace of mind. I have hinted at that already, the effect on the mind and the emotions of hidden, unconfessed sin. I am sure that if you are spiritually alive, and you have any experience of spiritual things, you must know that. You surely know this. You have that awful uncomfortable feeling when you try to pray, and you know there is something wrong which you have not confessed. There is something that you are trying to hide. Then you know there is a barrier, there is a tremendous obstacle in the way. Oh, you have to say that you agree with God, you have to admit that you have sinned, you have to say that you are sinners, you have to confess your sins. Blessed be God He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and then we know that inner peace of mind again, we know that all is well between us and God. We know that all is well between us and God for Jesus’ sake. The basis of this forgiveness is here in chapter 2, verse 2, ‘He is the propitiation,’ the sacrifice, which propitiates the righteous wrath of God, the peace-making sacrifice. ‘He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world’.
You may feel at the very end of all things, you may feel at the end of the world, you may feel to be the greatest sinner in the world, but as Paul declares, ‘It is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. Here is a propitiation that reaches down and reaches out to the furthermost corners of a sin-ruined world, and He is the propitiation for our sins as we come with this open, honest confession of our sins to our God. When we have been weaned away from our sins, and we have been brought to true repentance, and have turned our backs upon our sins and have forsaken our sins, and have confessed our sins, then He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Amen.